Decoding the Mona Lisas

The year 1913. An ‘undisclosed location’ in Somerset. The sizzle in the grapevine that a painting, created by a grandmaster, could be found there reaches the ears of art connoisseur and collector Hugh Blaker. He buys it, and brings it to his studio in Isleworth, outside London. And thus a legend was born that the painting called the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ was an earlier version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s signature masterpiece.

Recently, there were news items that the legend can now aspire to the status of history. ‘New proof said found for ‘original’ Mona Lisa’ and ‘Second’ Mona Lisa deemed authentic’ the headlines said. It is not an easy task to transform legend into history. It demands vesting new meanings in words such as ‘original’ and ‘second’, a new way of seeing these paintings. You have to see at the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ and not muse ‘mmm, looks like that Mona Lisa’, but know that she is the same woman whose smile inspired countless poems and parodies.

The book Mona Lisa: Leonardo’s earlier version attempts to pave the way for this new way of seeing. It is designed with a sumptuousness that assures us that the Mona Lisa Foundation, established to study the Isleworth Mona Lisa, has not spared any effort or expense in drawing from historical evidence, scientific and technological analysis, and expert opinion to transform legend into acceptable history. The effort spanned the last 35 years. Reproductions of various paintings are set in sepia-tinted pages where the text in serif fonts is indulged with ample space to pamper the eye of the beholder.

Many questions need to be tackled to establish the hallowed provenance of the Isleworth Lisa. For instance, how do we know that the woman in the Isleworth painting is indeed Mona Lisa depicted in her early twenties? How do we know Da Vinci painted this version, given that he does not sign his paintings? The book first sifts through historical evidence. This includes a sketch of Raphael set in a composition similar to the Isleworth painting; writings of historian and architect Georgio Vasari from 1550 that includes a description of an unfinished Da Vinci portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife Mona Lisa; and an entry in a travel journal that describes a portrait Da Vinci showed as ‘one of a certain Florentine woman, done from life, at the instance of the late Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici.’

It is not that these writings were discovered recently, they are well known and have been interpreted differently resulting in a still-continuing debate on who Mona Lisa (in Louvre) really is. Is she Lisa Gherardini, wife of Giocondo, or is she a favoured mistress of Leonardo’s patron Medici (else why did he ask Leonardo to paint her?), or is she Leonardo’s own mother as Freud (predictably) claimed? The book delves into this debate and eliminates different contenders and takes a stance that the Louvre painting is that of Lisa Gherardini and that the Isleworth is of her younger self.

The historical context in which this evidence is interpreted is elaborated by describing the key characters and events in this ‘who-is-she’ drama, such as the patrons of Da Vinci, his frustrations with them, their political intrigues and amorous adventures. This is to show that the confluence of events and the artists’ disposition gives life to the possibility that he did paint two different paintings of the same woman.

To establish the authorship of Da Vinci, the book relies on connoisseurship, where art experts and historians weigh in with their opinions. Analysis of the mathematics inherent in Da Vinci’s paintings and a regression study done by changing the age of the Louvre Mona Lisa using forensic techniques are fascinating in their detail. This is followed by descriptions of other scientific and physical tests, including the ones done in the last four years, where the paintings were digitally scanned and compared.


The conclusion refers to a chapter titled ‘What constitutes proof’ by a recent publication on the same subject, where the author argues that you need ‘an accumulation of interlocking reasons’ to prove authenticity. The book contends that it has elaborated such an accumulation to show that Isleworth Mona Lisa is indeed what they claim she is, Mona Lisa, albeit with eyebrows.

In the word ‘proof’ rests the burden that weighs the book down. Proof has to be built step by step, like an algorithm, which is what the book wants to do. Some sections do adopt that tone, to demonstrate that they are constructing an edifice. Step by step. But writing about art and art history is less like civil engineering and more like painting itself. You add different layers, blend them and add a touch of sfumato, Leonardo’s style that blurs edges. Thus the authors cannot but adopt a different tone in other sections such as historical context, which is marked by a tone of fond indulgence and grandiosity to mark the times. This confusion in tone stems from what the book does not acknowledge – it does not attempt to build proof but change a belief. What is required for people to accept a different narrative of history is not a function of proof but that of belief, with a little nudge from those in power.

And herein lies the bigger issue — the book subscribes to the idea that there is only one narrative of history. So instead of giving you a new way of seeing, it remains stuck in an old one that is more in tune with a time when greatness in art was well defined; oil paintings were a celebrated metaphor of material wealth; and history circled around the lives of dominant figures privileged by gender and class. Today, when notions of authorship are questionable, when art is struggling for a vocabulary beyond postmodernism, and capitalism needs resuscitation, what relevance does Da Vinci have? Perhaps that requires another book, which may not be written, for it requires not only time and inclination, but also funding.

Leonardo’s Earlier Version: The Mona Lisa Foundation, Bellerive, 29, 8008, Zurich, Switzerland.

( Sruthi Krishnan is a journalist who writes on culture and design)

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 7:00:52 PM |

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